The French military has killed a senior jihadist commander in northern Mali, a spokesperson for the French army announced on Thursday.
Ahmed al-Tilemsi, who is implicated in a number of high-profile terror attacks and abductions, was the leader of al-Mourabitoun, a splinter group of al-Qaeda, and one of several jihadist groups operating in the volatile Sahel region.
According to reports, al-Tilemsi was killed early on Thursday near the former Islamist stronghold of Gao, in the northwestern part of the country, in a raid by the French troops of Operation Barkhane.
Launched in July 2014, Operation Barkhane is an anti-Islamist campaign across Africa's Sahel region that succeeded the previous French military campaign, operation Serval, that aimed to rid northern Mali of jihadists.
Malian defense minister Bah N'Daw said in a statement that "six other terrorists were killed, and three taken prisoner" in the raid that killed al-Tilemsi.
Speaking to AFP, a spokesperson for the French government said, "Ahmed al-Tilemsi was a very valuable target. We'd been tracking him for several days." Al-Tilemsi was wanted by the US State Department, which offered a $5 million dollar reward for information leading to his capture.
Born in the late 1970s, Ahmed al-Tilemsi, whose real name is Abderrahmane Ould el-Amer, hailed from Tilemsi, a commune near Gao. He founded the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which claimed responsibility for the 2012 abduction of Frenchman Gilberto Rodrigues Léal near the western town of Kayes. The group announced Léal's death in April 2014, but his body was never found.
Al-Tilemsi is also implicated in the abduction of Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory, two 25 year-old Frenchmen who were abducted from a restaurant in Niamey — the capital of Niger — on January 7, 2011. Both men were executed by their captors during a botched rescue attempt by the French army later that year.
In August 2013, MUJAO merged with the Masked Men Brigade —a jihadist group led by Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar — to form al-Mourabitoun, named after the Almoravids, an Islamic dynasty of the 11th and 12th centuries that ruled over the western Sahara region.
Nicknamed the One-Eyed Sheik after he lost his left eye while handling explosives, Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the former head of militant organization al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He is accused of leading the deadly attack on the In Amenas gas facility in south-eastern Algeria in 2013, in which at least 39 hostages were killed.
Speaking to French radio RFI, journalist Lemine ould Salem, an expert on Sahelian jihadists, explained that Ahmed al-Tilemsi "was part of the council of leaders, a sort of 'Majlis-ash-Shura,' or advisory council for Belmokhtar's group and the MUJAO, but its primary function was to finance jihadists in Gao."
MUJAO has been linked to numerous drug trafficking operations in the Sahel region. André Bourgeot, an anthropologist and research director at the CNRS, France's main governmental research organization, told VICE News that most of the jihadists fighting in the region are involved in trafficking Colombian cocaine that has been smuggled through Venezuela and Guinea.
According to Gilles Jaron, a spokesperson for the French military, the French army worked together with Malian authorities to plan the raid, in which al-Tilemsi was killed. For Jaron, French troops have dealt "a very hard blow" to terrorists operating in the Sahel-Saharan strip.
French army spokesman Jaron says that French troops have "neutralized around fifty terrorists and [seized] several tons of weapons" since the launch of operation Barkhane, on August 1, 2014.
But for Bourgeot, the latest strike will likely only stall the group's operations for the time being. "These narco-jihadist entities aren't built around one person, but around a structure. When someone is killed, even though it temporarily weakens the group, it doesn't ultimately impede its activities." Bourgeot references the 2013 death of AQIM leader Abou Zeid, who was promptly replaced after being killed by French and Chadian troops.